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Prugh The Pro's Excellent Adventure at 17

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | At precisely 9:07 last Thursday morning, American rookie Alex Prugh, wearing a white cap, olive shirt, khaki slacks and white golf shoes, “chipped” a 9-iron into a slight breeze toward the 17th green of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Prugh would later explain that the wind hadn’t been doing anything all day up until that point. “Then we step up there and we start feeling a couple of little gusts,” he said.
Fortunately, he added, ripples in the water near the island green confirmed what he and his caddie, Josh Bixler, were sensing back at the tee box. Their numbers were: 120 yards to the front edge; 124 to the hole; four paces on and four paces in from the right.
Prugh, a.k.a “Prugh The Pro” because of his fast start on the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing earlier this year, had played this hole hundreds of times before while sitting at home on his couch with the Tiger Woods Xbox video game. He had even cyber-aced golf’s most notorious par-3. Moreover, during Tuesday’s practice round, Prugh had allowed Bixler, a former college teammate at the University of Washington, to take a swing at 17. And Bixler had hit the flagstick on the fly, his ball stopping 10 feet from the hole.
Like Prugh, playing competitors Tim Clark and Brian Davis had also been awakened prior to 5 a.m. Thursday thanks to the luck of a draw that targeted those three to be first off the back nine of the opening round of The Players Championship.
That meant, among other things, whoever hit initially on the signature 17th would be the first player to have to pull a club on the the closest thing their sport has to a Bermuda Triangle.
Adding to the drama was the fact that Prugh was leading the tournament at the time. He had just birdied the par-5 16th. And he had retained the honor. He would be the ‘guinea pig’ – the 2010 Players’ first 17th hole experiment.
England’s Paul Casey had been tied for the Thursday lead at The Players in 2007 when he was that year’s guinea pig at 17. His 9-iron was short and wet. The result was a triple-bogey six and a missed cut. “It was a good round of golf,” Casey said that day, “until 17.”
One year later, Casey’s countryman, Ian Poulter, was the first player on the first day to face 17. The helping breeze from left to right was relatively calm. Poulter selected a pitching wedge from 148 yards and confidently drilled it to 20 feet. He made the putt and followed that with birdie on the difficult 18th to find himself temporarily tied for the lead.
“It’s a lot easier being the guinea pig,” he said, “when the wind isn’t blowing 40 miles an hour.” Poulter went on to tie for for 21st. He followed that up with a solo second at last year’s Players.
But this week the role of guinea pig had fallen to the little-known Prugh, a 25-year-old from Las Vegas who still mostly lives in the shadow of another rookie, Rickie Fowler, with whom he plays most of his practice rounds.
Prugh’s 9-iron at 17 would land softly and die quickly with a little help from the ridge in the middle of the green. “The one place to err,” he said, “is not five yards short.”
His ball stopped exactly 10 feet, 2 inches from the hole. And at precisely 9:15 a.m., he coolly converted his birdie. “Not in the water, and good to go,” Prugh said.
By the end of Thursday a total of seven players (including the star-crossed Casey) had dunked their tee balls at 17. Tame winds and high humidity, which led to softened greens, had kept the casualty count to a minimum. The most recent “high water” mark at No. 17 was 2007 when, by end of business Sunday, 93 premium golf balls had gone to their watery graves.
“It’s a tricky hole as we all know,” said 2009 Players champion Henrik Stenson.
Ya think?
But there are other accidents waiting to happen at testy TPC Sawgrass. Phil Mickelson once five-putted the 10th hole. And, on another occasion, Charley Hoffman carded a nine there. “I still have nightmares,” Hoffman confessed.
Hoffman’s group went off the first tee Thursday the same time Prugh’s teed off at No. 10. “It’s part of the gig,” Hoffman said of the violence to the soul that occurs when your alarm clock explodes at 4:30 a.m.
Prugh eventually stumbled to a double-bogey on the seventh, another dangerous hole, when he drove it left and into a canal. His Thursday 69 left him three back of the leaders that included J.B. Holmes, who … yes … birdied the 17th.
What does it all of this mean, if anything?
Maybe an Alex Prugh is simply too young to be daunted by being a guinea pig. Or maybe the kids from Gen Xbox are just that different. “Let’s be realistic,” said Prugh, who went on to make the cut, “in college you either go to class, practice golf or sit on your couch and do other things, which generally involve video games.”


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